Mathematician Professor Jo Boaler shares her tips on helping children to enjoy maths
1. Encourage children to play maths puzzles and games. Award-winning mathematician Sarah Flannery reported that her maths ability and enthusiasm came, not from school, but from the puzzles she was given to solve at home (Flannery, 2002). Puzzles and games or anything with a dice will help kids enjoy maths and develop numeracy and logic skills.
2. Always be encouraging and never tell kids they are wrong when they are working on maths problems. Instead, find the logic in their thinking because there is always some logic to what they say. For example, if your child multiplies three by four and gets seven, say ‘Oh I see what you’re thinking; you’re using what you know about addition to add three and four. When we multiply we have four groups of three.’
3. Never associate maths with speed. It is not important to work quickly, particularly in the younger years, and we now know that forcing kids to work fast on maths is the best way to start maths anxiety for children, especially girls (Boaler, 2012).
4. Never share with your children the idea that you were bad at maths at school or you dislike it, especially if you are a mother. Researchers found that as soon as mothers shared that idea with their daughters, their daughter’s achievement went down (Eccles & Jacobs, 1986).
5. Encourage number sense. What separates high and low achievers in primary school is number sense, ie having an idea of the size of numbers and being able to separate and put numbers together flexibly (Gray & Tall, 1994). For example, when working out 29 + 56, if you take one from the 56 and make it 30 + 55, it is much easier to work out. The flexibility to work with numbers in this way is what is called number sense and it is very important. My book The Elephant In The Classroom: Helping Children Learn And Love Maths shares ideas of ways to develop number sense in younger and older children.
6. Encourage a growth mindset, ie the idea that ability and smartness change as you work more and learn more. The opposite to this is a fixed mindset, where the idea is that ability is fixed and you can either do maths or you can’t. When children have a growth mindset, they do well with challenges and do better in school overall (Dweck, 2006). When children have a fixed mindset and they encounter difficult work, they often conclude that they haven’t got what it takes to do maths. One way in which parents encourage a fixed mindset is by telling their children they are clever or smart when they do something well. That seems like a nice thing to do, but it sets children up for difficulties later, as when kids fail at something they will inevitably conclude that they aren’t smart after all. There is a pervasive cultural view in England that some kids can do well in maths and some can’t. Parents believe this and some teachers believe it too. This is completely wrong and one of the biggest reasons that maths is a traumatic experience for many children in England.